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What if the Germans had won the first world war?

29 Dec

With the war’s centenary near, this is not a parlour game. Counterfactual conjecture allows us to see the conflict far more objectively.

David Cameron visits the graves of first world war soldiers in Zonnebeke, Belgium. ‘At least we can see that the outcome mattered. Europe would have been different if Germany had won in 1918.’ Photograph: Virginia Mayo/AP

People who see a divine hand or the iron laws of dialectical materialism at work in human affairs bridle at the question: “What if things had turned out differently?” To EH Carr, historian of Soviet Russia, to speak of what might have happened in history, as opposed to what did happen, was just a “parlour game”. To EP Thompson, author of The Making of the English Working Class, such counterfactual speculation was “unhistorical shit”.

Other historians have confessed to being more intrigued. “The historian must constantly put himself at a point in the past at which the known factors will seem to permit different outcomes,” wrote Johan Huizinga. It is important to recognise that, at any moment in history, there are real alternatives, argued Hugh Trevor-Roper.

Happily, none of this argument deters the writers of fiction or the public. Germany’s possible defeat of Britain in 1940 is by some distance the national treasure trove of might-have-beens. As long ago as 1964, the film It Happened Here by Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo raised the then unthinkable thought that collaboration would have thrived in Hitler’s Britain. More recently, a succession of novels, including Robert Harris’s Fatherland, Resistance by Owen Sheers and CJ Sansom’s Dominion – which imagines a Vichy Britain in 1952 ruled by Lord Beaverbrook and Oswald Mosley – have explored the same theme.

By comparison, the first world war has been the subject of far less counterfactual speculation. Niall Ferguson is one of the exceptions, in an essay which considers the possibility that Britain might have stood aside from the European war in August 1914. And although his essay suffers from the fact that the Eurosceptic Ferguson is over-eager to portray the kaiser as the godfather of the later European Union, his account of the cabinet debates of 1914 is fascinating because Herbert Asquith’s Liberal government could so easily have decided to stay out of the war – and very nearly did.

With the centenary of the first world war almost upon us, 2014 is likely to witness plenty of debate about the right forms of commemoration and about whether the war achieved anything. At present, argument about the war mainly consists of two mutually uncomprehending camps. On the one hand, there are those who, as Margaret MacMillan put it recently, think the war was “an unmitigated catastrophe in a sea of mud”. On the other, there are those who insist that it was nevertheless “about something”. At the time, says MacMillan, people on all sides thought they had a just cause. “It is condescending and wrong to think they were hoodwinked.”

But what was the something that the first world war was about? To answer that it was a war between empires, which it surely was, is fine as long as some effort is made to distinguish between the empires. But this rarely happens in a debate that is polarised between collective myths of national sacrifice on the one hand (certainly in Britain and France) and an indiscriminate muddy catastrophe on the other.

The more one tries to examine and maybe get beyond these dominant narratives, as we should next year and as the centenary rolls on, the more a bit of the counterfactual may help the process.

The first world war came to an end in November 1918, when the German armies surrendered near Compiegne. But it could plausibly have ended in a very different way in spring 1918, if Ludendorff’s offensive on Paris and towards the Channel had succeeded. It nearly did so. And what might 20th-century Europe have been like if it had?

Obviously, it would have been dominated and shaped by Germany. But what kind of Germany? The militaristic, conservative, repressive Prussian power created by Bismarck? Or the Germany with the largest labour movement in early 20th-century Europe? German history after 1918 would have been a contest between the two – and no one can say which would have won in the end.

But one can say that a victorious Germany, imposing peace on the defeated allies at the treaty of Potsdam, would not have had the reparations and grievances that were actually inflicted upon it by France at Versailles. As a consequence, the rise of Hitler would have been much less likely. In that case, neither the Holocaust nor the second world war would necessarily have followed. If Germany’s Jews had survived, Zionism might not have had the international moral force that it rightly claimed after Hitler’s defeat. The modern history of the Middle East would therefore be very different – partly also because Turkey would have been among the victors in 1918.

In the kaiser’s Europe, defeated France would be the more likely seedbed for fascism, not Germany. But with its steel and coal still in German-controlled Alsace-Lorraine, France’s military and naval potential would have been contained. Meanwhile, defeated Britain would have seen its navy sunk in the Heligoland Bight, have been forced to cede its oil interests in the Middle East and the Gulf to Germany, and have been unable to contain Indian nationalism. In practice, the British empire would have been unsustainable. Today’s Britain might have ended up as a modest north European social democratic republic – like Denmark without a prince.

Meanwhile America, whose entry into the war would have been successfully pre-empted by Germany’s victory, would have become a firmly isolationist power and not the enforcer of international order. Franklin Roosevelt would solve America’s postwar economic problems in the 1930s, but he would never fight a war in Europe – though he might have to fight one against Japan. The Soviet Union, with a wary but powerful neighbour in victorious Germany, would have been the great destabilising factor but it might not have been invaded as it was in 1941. And with no second world war there might never have been a cold war either.

A parlour game? Obviously. But at least we can see that the outcome mattered. Europe would have been different if Germany had won in 1918. It would have been grim, repressive and unpredictable in many ways. But there is a plausible case for saying many fewer people would have died in 20th-century Europe. If nothing else, that is worth some reflection. The first world war was a catastrophe in the mud. But it was about something more than tragic sacrifice too. The outcome – what happened and what did not – made a difference. In 2014 we need to get beyond the rival national perspectives and learn to see the war more objectively and thoughtfully than has yet happened.

Obamacare is the Epitome of Mises’ “Planned Chaos”

15 Nov

It is such a kick to read the transcripts from the White House’s health care “war room” in the first days of release. What a meltdown, and you get to watch it all in real-time.

I’m not trying to be cruel to the kindly despots who have wrecked so much of what worked in the existing system, only to replace it with an unworkable central plan that’s robbing people all over the country.

But still, there is justice in this humiliation.

Somehow, the Republicans forced the Obama administration to cough up the details, and it is from these transcripts that we discovered the truth about’s mysterious first day. Only six people enrolled. That’s six of 7 million people eligible for the great new dawn for “affordable” health care.

It’s no wonder the Obama administration tried to hide the numbers from you. But in a digital age, even the White House can’t keep this stuff secret anymore. Every aspect of reality is logged in real-time.

It’s a double-edged sword. True enough, they are still logging our lives, which is tremendously annoying. But at the same time, they are also logging their own failures. In real-time, nonetheless. And this provides unprecedented insight into many great disasters of our time.

Here is a screenshot I pulled from one such transcript:

If you’re critical of the government, this is a beautiful failure.

Supporters of the president and the health care law in his name see this as a small hiccup. To be sure, people say that all of these problems will be fixed. That the problems with creating an account are mere technical issues. Top technicians from the best companies have all been hired by the government to make it right.

In other words, it’s only a matter of time. Maybe.

The government-backed American health care system will become ever more like the automobiles in Cuba, a living monument to what once was.

But there is a more substantive issue here. The real question is how an epic failure on this scale could have happened in the first place. The Affordable Care Act is the fulfillment of decades of planning on the part of policy professionals. They had a half billion dollars to work with. The so-called “smartest guys in the room” had every incentive to make this rollout work.

So why was it such a mess? This is where things become interesting. Government doesn’t have customers that it serves. It has only subjects that obey. It has no profit and loss statements. It is not limited in its operations by the demand that it behave rationally like other businesses. It can spend what it wants based on political priorities. It has neither the incentive nor the means to anticipate changes in the system or to deal with the uncertainties of the future.

For all these reasons, it really doesn’t matter whether the website is fixed or not. The website is a metaphor for a program that cannot work. If it is fixed, it will be frozen in time, unable to adapt to change, much less improve as technology improves.

The harshest critics are exactly right. The government-backed American health care system will become ever more like the automobiles in Cuba, a living monument to what once was.

Just this weekend, I heard a fascinating lecture by professor Alexei Marcoux of Loyola University in Chicago. He provided some real insight into the mindset that led to the creation of this program. Architects of the ACA expected that a government-made system would work better than the market could work.

It all began about 100 years ago. The government’s first intervention in the medical industry created a regulatory agency for medical schools. And after that, all bets were off. Government was in charge, using “science” to improve the world you live in. The actual effect — and probably the real intent — was to limit the number of people who could call themselves physicians. This, in turn, drove up the price for their services.

How is it that society went hundreds of years without any government intervention in the medical marketplace and then it suddenly came upon us with very little public objection or even awareness?

Professor Marcoux explained in his lecture how the late 19th century saw a tremendous explosion in scientific knowledge in every area. It came with rising prosperity, increased funding for research, and new creativity inspired by commercial ambitions.

It was a natural and normal assumption that every other field of study could benefit from the application of scientific methods and insights. So, therefore, why not the management of human affairs through government? Notice that at the same time we got the beginnings of medical intervention, we also got the income tax (manage wealth!), the Fed (manage money!), antitrust policy (only government knows how big or small business must be), the origins of the welfare state, spreading intervention in education and labor, and so much else.

The pushers of Obamacare had years to plan. Everything looked right on paper. No expense was spared. There were thousands of meetings, a foolproof plan, mountains of numbers to back it all up. Then finally you press the button. The whole thing explodes — and not just the website. The risk pools will not lower premiums. The mandates will not cause people to experience health-insurance bliss. The price controls will not control costs. The new tools for access will not lead to greater access.

Science is glorious. But government is not science, and society cannot be managed scientifically from the center. Ludwig von Mises had a phrase he used to describe every attempt: “planned chaos.” There is a plan, and the experts are in charge with all resources and conviction. But the results are crazy, random, irrational, confusing, and chaotic.

It would be the greatest legacy of the Affordable Care Act if the government finally understands this message. Then we could get back to the old liberal conviction that individuals always and everywhere do a better job in managing their lives. Better than the government, anyway.


Jeffrey Tucker
for The Daily Reckoning

P.S. One news article I came across claimed that roughly 3.5 million Americans have lost their insurance in the months leading up to the Affordable Care Act’s big rollout. And this is only the beginning. By the time the government realizes that the whole program is one giant colossal failure, we’ll be in too deep. The lesson? You can’t depend on the government. But you can make sure you’re prepared regardless of what’s thrown your way. Sign up for the Laissez Faire Today email edition, and start learning some real ways to live a freer, happier life outside the prying eyes of the government.

Original article posted on Laissez Faire Today


Jeffrey Tucker

I’m executive editor of Laissez Faire Books and the proprietor of the Laissez Faire Club. I’m the author of two books in the field of economics and one on early music. My main professional work between 1985 and 2011 was with the MIses Institute but I’ve also worked with the Acton Institute and Mackinac Institute, as well as written thousands of published articles. My personal twitter account @jeffreyatucker FB is @jeffrey.albert.tucker Plain old email is

Today’s Thoughts . . .

14 Nov

By now you’ve probably read or heard about the cashiering of Guns & Ammo editor Dick Metcalf over his December 2013 “Let’s Talk” column in which he parsed “infringing” vs. “regulating” our right to keep and bear firearms. (Read the subsequent apologia here.)  gun pic lead

I’ve not yet read – or heard – Metcalf called to task for the real mistake he made in his column – which was not tub-thumping forinfringing our rights but for being dishonest (or perhaps merely ignorant) when he discussed regulating them.

Metcalf did the usual thing and quoted the language of the Second Amendment, which reads, “A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed.”

Italics added.gun cartoon

Where Metcalf erred – or perhaps deliberately hoped to mislead – was by not filtering the language of the late 18th century through a 21st century English translator. “Well-regulated” meant something rather different to the powdered wig set than it means to us, today. (Much in the same way that “gay” meant something rather different to the people of 1920s America than it means to the people of 2013 America.)

So, what did “well-regulated” mean circa 1787?

It meant, simply, kept in good orderwell-trained and equipped.

The men who wrote and approved the Second Amendment desired that every yeoman farmer – every able-bodied man – know how to handle a gun for self-defense of himself, his family and his country. And more, they believed he had every right to do these things.


Don’t believe me? Look into it.      colonial pic

The idea that “well-regulated” meantrestricted or controlled or supervised by the state – the meaning of “regulated” in today’s common English – is simply nonsense. An idea that only a historical illiterate could entertain. Else how to explain the fact that there were no regulations – none – restricting or controlling or supervising the possession of firearms by any adult male (or even boys) in the late 18th century – and for decadesthereafter. Are we to believe that the founders really did mean to “regulate” (modern usage) the right to keep and bear arms, but just forgot to do so? What about all those statues of colonials bearing arms? What about all those actual colonials – virtually every man alive – who bore them? Who openly carried and kept them? Without a single “regulation” – in the modern sense?


Metcalf, et al, continue to try to prop up their linguistic straw man. And of course, they do it because it works –  because most people are historical ignoramuses.gun final

You can agree or disagree with this – with the idea of people not having to beg permission from the state to keep/bear arms or only being allowed to keep and bear them under certain conditions. But to take the position that Metcalf did – that it was the intention of the Second Amendment to regulate (modern usage) the people’s right to keep and bear arms – is fundamentally dishonest or ignorant.

Or both.

Which is worse? I’ll leave that up to you.

Thousand-Count Indictments no Longer Provoke Much Notice

9 Oct

October 7, 2013

On September 3, an Ohio prison inmate named Ariel Castro reportedly hanged himself with a bed sheet in his prison cell.  Castro thus robbed the State of Ohio of its opportunity to take his life naturally.  Castro had been sentenced only weeks earlier to life without parole plus a thousand years.  Castro’s crimes stemmed from his kidnapping of three young women between 2002 and 2004 when the women were 14, 16 and 20 years old, and his confinement of them in various rooms of his house for years.

By all evidence and appearances, Castro was mostly a despicable human being.  A government employee when he worked at all, Castro confined his three victims in brutal conditions and in chains and repeatedly raped, beat and starved them.

But the bizarre facts of Castro’s case were equaled by the bizarre number of criminal charges that the State of Ohio brought against him.  On July 12, 2013, prosecutors unleashed an indictment against Castro charging him with almost a thousand felony counts.  977 to be exact: 512 counts of kidnapping, 446 counts of rape and seven counts of sexual abuse.  Two counts of aggravated murder stemmed from allegations that Castro beat one of the women so savagely that she miscarried.  The indictment alleged Castro carried out this murder after premeditation, meaning that Castro would be subject to the death penalty if convicted.  There were also six counts of assault, three counts of child endangerment and one count of possessing criminal tools.  Bail was set at $8 million.

Castro’s indictment was probably one of the lengthiest in American history.  Yet its astounding length mostly escaped much comment in the press.


The vast majority of criminal indictments filed in the 1700s and 1800s accused a single defendant of a single offense.  Because lay citizen grand jurors—nonlawyers—wrote up most criminal indictments in early America, such documents were mostly self-limiting in terms of length and complexity.  The takeover of the grand jury system by government prosecutors during the twentieth century led to an explosion in lengthy and complicated indictments.  Arguably, this phenomenon has also incentivized lawmakers to enact increasingly lengthy and complicated criminal laws.

Studies show that multi-count indictments greatly increase the likelihood of conviction.  According to Professor Andrew Leopold, criminal defendants who are tried on a single count are convicted by juries about two-thirds of the time.  Thus, some 33 to 35 percent are acquitted.   But those tried on more than one count are “more likely to be convicted of something.”  Even more significantly, writes Leopold, “as more counts [a]re added, defendants [a]re also more likely to be convicted of the most serious charge against them.”

A trial on the indictment against Ariel Castro might have taken years.  But then the indictment—like many modern criminal indictments—was designed to insure that no trial would ever take place.  In modern practice, the state almost always agrees to drop some of its charges in exchange for guilty pleas to others.  And modern defense lawyers spend most of their time merely negotiating over their clients’ sentences.   In Castro’s case, prosecutors agreed not to seek the death penalty in exchange for Castro’s guilty pleas to 937 counts.

At one time there were precedents in many jurisdictions forbidding prosecutors from piling on counts in a single prosecution.  For example, the Iowa Supreme Court held in 1881 that an indictment must state but a single offense.  But when faced with the emerging onslaught of multi-count, multi-defendant prosecutions during the early twentieth century, judges shrank rather than muster the courage to face down ambitious prosecutors.

In 1936, a federal judge in Texas wrote that “[t]here was a time when the nicety of pleading demanded an avoidance of so-called multiplicity or duplicity.  I would not like to say that that time has wholly disappeared, but I do say that felonies and misdemeanors may now be joined.”

A few hours in a law library will substantiate the growth of multi-count and multi-defendant prosecutions over the past century.  Today, roughly half of trial defendants are charged with more than one count, and a third are tried jointly with codefendants.   Indictments running to more than 50 pages and containing 80 counts or more are not unusual in federal court and in many state courts.   Some indictments are now so complicated that they begin with lengthy indexes or tables of contents.  The indictment against Ariel Castro was 576 pages long.

There are cases (mostly from decades ago) where courts held that a complicated prosecution overwhelmed a jury’s ability to deliberate.  But with each passing decade, the burden of multi-count, lengthy criminal indictments grows more crippling.  When defendants request that counts be divided into separate cases, trial judges need only point to the body of previous lengthy indictments as precedents.  “In reaching our determination that appellants were not unduly prejudiced by the length and complexity of the joint trial,” wrote the U.S. Eleventh Circuit in 1982, “we are guided by recent cases of similar magnitude that have rejected the same argument.”

When it becomes clear that a defendant insists on his innocence and intends to take accusations to trial, prosecutors are known to double down on their allegations and file lengthened, “superseding” indictments, usually adding more pages of accusations.

When prosecutors file superseding indictments, judges shockingly allow prosecutors to try defendants according to any one or a combination of the indictments on file in a case, so that defendants may not even know what charges to prepare for at trial.  “[T]he government may elect to proceed on any pending indictment,” wrote the U.S. Ninth Circuit in a recent opinion, “whether it is the most recently returned superseding indictment or a prior indictment.”

Forget for a moment that Ariel Castro was a loathsome, wretched individual who was probably deserving of little sympathy.  On display in Castro’s case were some of the darkest trends in modern American criminal procedure.  Americans no longer have criminal courts that operate according to adversarial law.  Rather, every practitioner in the courtroom—from the judges to the bailiffs to the judges’ clerks to the court reporters—are arrayed against the individual rights of criminal defendants.  Video of Castro’s arraignment shows Castro’s own “defense” lawyers urging Castro to open his eyes and look up so as to give the (almost certainly false) impression that Castro fully understood the 977 separate charges against him—and thereby to make the arraignment proceed more efficiently for the government.

Castro’s alleged defense lawyers even waived the reading of the indictment.  Thus, the judge was relieved of the duty of actually reading every word to Castro in open court.  Such a reading would have taken all day—and might have angered the judge.  But if the defense had insisted on it, there would probably never be another nine-hundred count indictment filed in that judge’s court. 

Castro’s chances of beating the rap at a trial, of course, were probably nil.  But there may have been something almost heroic in the act of a defense attorney trying to defend a client from a thousand-count indictment.  Castro’s lawyers could have demanded a speedy trial and bravely, with chins held high, put on a years-long cross-examination regarding each element of each count, impeaching every prosecution witness to produce doubts regarding every point.  Memories could be challenged with regard to dates, places, and other details.


And there might have even been a chance that jurors asked to sacrifice months or years of their lives in order to convict a defendant of hundreds of charges might balk—or use their verdict to show their outrage at the government.  This kind of thing has happened in a couple of the longest trials in history.  The New York Times reported in 1990 that the longest trial in American history was the then-current trial of a nursery school operator charged with 65 counts of child abuse.  The trial lasted 30 months and ended in a verdict of not guilty on 52 counts and deadlocks on 13 others.   The 1988 trial of 20 alleged members of the New Jersey Lucchese crime family in which the defense quickly rested without calling a single witness lasted 21 months before a federal jury acquitted the defendants on all 77 counts.  (A single prosecution witness had spent several months on the stand.)  A multi-count trial of Oakland cops lasted a year and produced a jury that deliberated for four months.  (The jury acquitted on 8 counts and were unable to reach a verdict on the remaining 27 counts.)  Some observers believe this phenomenon played a role in the acquittal of O.J. Simpson in 1995, by a jury that was sequestered (kept hostage in hotel rooms) longer than any other jury in California history (11 months).*


Not only do long, complicated, multi-count indictments increase the likelihood of convictions.  Multi-count indictments also provide a means for the government to evade the Speedy Trial Clause of the Sixth Amendment, a constitutional provision that originally acted as something of a brake on the charging decisions of prosecutors.  Generally speaking, a prosecutor in early America had to try his case within sixty days of filing criminal charges.  This was an ancient protection enunciated in the Magna Charta and probably predating it.

Under the Speedy Trial Clause’s original meaning, prosecutors would have been reluctant to bring complex or multitudinous charges.  But the Speedy Trial Act of 1974—passed by Congress in order to construe the Sixth Amendment right—allows the suspension of the right to a speedy trial upon the mere declaration by a judge that a case is “complex.”  Federal judges have not only upheld this Act; they have enthusiastically pronounced hundreds of cases to be complex for purposes of evading the Speedy Trial clock.  But the same judges who pronounce a case “complex” for purposes of gutting speedy trial rights generally pronounce the same cases to be not so complex as to require separation of counts or other limitations upon the prosecution.

*Note that the indictment in O.J. Simpson’s case was comparatively brief, charging only two counts of murder.  The trial’s great length was owed to other factors.


Dr. Roger Roots, J.D., Ph.D. [send him mail], is an assistant professor of Criminal Justice at Jarvis Christian College and a member of the advisory board of the Fully Informed Jury Association.

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